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Dennis Prager and The Ecological Indian

The diatribe begun in Dennis Prager and The Ecological Indian continues. Now that I've read the book, some additional observations:

Krech starts off modestly. He merely wants to replace the stereotype of the Indian as holier-than-thou ecologist (e.g., the ads with Iron Eyes Cody crying at the thought of the despoiled environment) with a more complex picture.

Krech examines a series of separate cases. He presents facts, anecdotes, and speculation about each one. For much of the book he avoids taking positions. His firmest conclusions are that the cases were more complex than the "harmony with nature" stereotype would suggest.

A couple of examples show Krech's thinking. First, he discusses how Indians started fires to clear out the underbrush so animal and plant life could flourish. This is the same practice employed by ecology-minded land managers today. Krech credits Indians with being ecologically aware, but notes that sometimes the fires got out of control.

Second, he discusses the Indian practice of killing buffalo by stampeding them over cliffs or herding them into enclosures. He credits Indians with often using every part of the buffalo, but notes that sometimes they were wasteful, taking only the hump and tongue for food.

He uses one unspoiled jump site to quantify this. After stampeding a herd over a cliff, the Indians cut up and used some 3/4 of the buffalo completely. Further down in the pile, they took only the humps and tongues. They couldn't reach the carcasses at the bottom and left them to rot.

In one of his more opinionated moments, Krech says this behavior doesn't fit today's definition of "conservationist." No? If it doesn't, it's not far from it.

Indians mostly lit fires for sound ecological purposes. Sometimes they lit them for non-ecological reasons—for instance, to route enemies—and occasionally the fires got out of control. Indians mostly used all of the buffalo they killed. If the buffalo were jammed together and difficult to reach, they might take only the choicest parts, or nothing at all.

I don't find that surprising. Neither wildfires nor buffalo stampedes are precision instruments. When your only tools are blunt, you use them as best you can. If that leads to waste, it's pretty much unavoidable.

As Krech admits, Indians employed these practices soundly the majority of the time. If the 3/4 figure applied to their success in general as well as to one buffalo site, I'd say they were good ecologists.

Similarly, I doubt many of today's environmentalists get what they want 75% of the time, or use resources without wasting a quarter of them. They'd be lucky to preserve 25% of an old-growth stand of trees, much less 75%. Environmentalists have to accept reduced results with their blunt instruments (negotiations and protests), even if their ecological credentials are impeccable.

Krech's bias begins to show
The chapters on beaver and deer hunting go about as I suspected. And Krech begins stretching for a bigger point. For instance, he cites six or so claims by Jesuit priests and fur trappers that Algonquin Indians killed beavers wantonly. He contrasts the Indians' honoring of animals with this alleged wantonness and implies the Natives were hypocritical.

Several flaws in this argument should be apparent. Six fragments of testimony in hundreds of years of history? About only one region's inhabitants? By untrained observers who had a vested interest in making the Indians seem savage? With no Native experts to offer a counterpoint?

The lack of Native input is a glaring fault throughout the book. Though The Ecological Indian is all about the Native experience, Krech almost never quotes Native people. When he does, he qualifies their statements, suggesting today's Indians are biased toward making their ancestors look good.

Perhaps so, but the other people he quotes—historical figures, academic types—also had or have vested interests. Naturally, early explorers would've made Indians seem more deadly and destructive than they actually were. Naturally, professors like Krech would make their conclusions more extreme or controversial than the evidence supports. They wouldn't get far in academia if their work merely confirmed previous studies.

In his epilogue, Krech lists a litany of recent cases in which tribes have favored development over preservation of the environment. He creeps toward the conclusion Dennis Prager leapt to: that Indians weren't and aren't more ecologically minded than anyone else.

That conclusion may have some validity now. Native people have had to earn a living according to the white man's rules after the white man destroyed their traditional existence. But that doesn't make it true in the past. If Indian and white people revere nature the same nowadays—a debatable proposition—Indians used to revere it more. And the European colonizers revered it much, much less.

In conclusion, Krech presents enough evidence to debunk the Iron Eyes Cody stereotype of Indians as nature's holy guardian. A stereotype that most people in the know never took seriously. His analysis doesn't support Dennis Prager's claims that the Indians were no better than the Euro-American settlers. Only a right-wing propagandist could jump to that conclusion based on the scanty facts Krech presents.


P.S. A quote from the The Ecological Indian itself may lend some much-needed perspective:

In this [buffalo] story, the role of market hunters is undisputed. If Red Cloud, the nineteenth-century Sioux leader, actually said what has been attributed to him, he may well have been correct: "Where the Indian killed one buffalo, the hide and tongue hunters killed fifty."

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Reviews of The Ecological Indian
From Amazon.com:

Mixed Bag, February 25, 2000
By E. N. Anderson (Riverside, CA USA) — See all my reviews

This review is from: The Ecological Indian: Myth and History (Hardcover)

Earlier customer reviews have tended to comment on bias. Most of the book is actually very fair, particularly the first few chapters; the treatment of Paul Martin's "Pleistocene overkill" hypothesis is exemplary. But the last couple of chapters are indeed rather biased, and read perhaps more "anti-Indian" than Dr. Krech intended. For example, Dr. Krech makes it sound as if the buffalo jump was a common, regular thing—the Indians drove a few million buffalo over a cliff every time they wanted a light lunch. Actually, archaeology and common sense both suggest that a big jump episode was rare. Try herding buffalo on foot and you'll understand. And Krech takes an extreme position in re the Indians' tendency to kill beaver; most authorities agree that beaver were more or less conserved until the white trappers got into the act. Certainly, there were lots of beaver, and not just in eastern Canada (the area he considers). Over a million beaver were trapped out of the southwestern US in the 1830s and 1840s, in spite of very dense Indian settlement then and earlier. The first 5 or 6 chapters would provoke little reasonable disagreement, but the last 2 or 3 would provoke (or are provoking) increasingly acrimonious debate among the learned. Suffice it to say that if you got the message that the Native Americans were not always models of selflessness, but were ordinary (if sensible) human beings, you're right, and this is probably what Dr. Krech intended. If you got the message that the Native Americans were bloodthirsty savages who killed wantonly, you're wrong. I hope and trust Dr. Krech did not mean that, but he does quote-at length and with apparent favor—a lot of racist 19th-century writers who did mean that.

Somewhat disturbing portrait, February 28, 2007 By Northeast Gardener — See all my reviews

The author clearly put a lot of work into this book. However, I feel he stressed the negative too much, while conveniently avoiding discussing the positive interactions many Native American tribes have had with their environment and the closeness to the natural world they lived with 24/7. Krech claims he doesn't mean to denigrate Native Americans, but I feel he manages to.

Native Americans in the 17 and 1800's were just trying to SURVIVE, and in very harsh and difficult conditions. For someone in the 21st century to start criticizing how they lived at that time is just ridiculous. There's no level playing field to make such comparisons. And you could say they were "Ecological" in that they knew and understood so much more about their natural environment than we do today. Of course they didn't have the benefit of foresight to know that it was possible to wipe out a species like the buffalo that used to "blacken the plains". They clearly thought these populations would go on forever.

I just don't think you can look at this situation retrospectively and judge Native Americans as being not "ecological". Krech writes about a tribe using wasteful practices and then finishes the chapter with a number of examples of Indian tribes who rejected such practices.

Yes, I found him contradictory at times. And I felt it was a choice he made--he could have highlighted the positive interactions of tribe to environment, but he chose to highlight the negative. When he discusses Fire, he describes how Native Americans knew how to use it judiciously, to the advantage of the local ecosystem (as well as the tribe), but then he talks about times when the fires would get out of hand, as his proof that they were not "ecological". Sorry, I just couldn't buy it.

save your time, November 16, 2005
By prairie guy "jr" (great plains, usa) — See all my reviews

As other reviewers have pointed out, this book is written with a prominent agenda — debunking the myth of an ecologically friendly, noble native. Unfortunately, the author uses white stereotypes to make his case rather than presenting firm evidence to support his claims. There can be little doubt that native peoples had an effect on their environment. However, to suggest as the author does, that it was on a scale equal to that of euro settlers is just plain stupidity. Native peoples didn't practice ecological principles, they were too busy trying to survive off the land that gave them everything. Because of that, they were truly connected to the land; something no non-native can possibly claim.

Obsessing about "idealized" Indians, November 25, 2001
By "csolizphdcandidate" (University of Washington) — See all my reviews

A pervasive myth about American Indians, and the perennial worry of certain scholars, is that Indians have been, or are being, over-idealized. Native Americans themselves have never blamed the over-idealization of Indians as the reason for anything of consequence that resulted from their historical encounters with Europeans, certainly not, for example, the reason for their removal to reservations, nor as the motivating factor in the decimation of their populations. Conversely, however, Indians know that it was the European over-idealization of themselves that has been the determining political force in these examples and in their attitude toward land and living space. The idea behind Indian reservations must be contemplated with a question from Vine Deloria's God is Red: Do political and social formations reflect concepts of land?

Indians in southern America witnessed first hand the extremes of attitude toward environment when they saw their formerly pristine streets fouled by the European habit of urinating in the street and their horses defecating in the streets. What traditions reflecting concepts of land came into play when the Spanish and French wantonly burned Indian cities, or stole away their stores (for example, in 1582 Espejo carted away 40,000 cotton blankets and articles of clothing from the Southwest), or overturned their economy and destroyed their environment by herds of cattle? Despite this repeated history, the accusation against Indians of being over-idealized historically remains the enduring argument ever since the Christian/Pagan debates set the mold in the 15th and 16th centuries after the Indians were run off the island of Cuba in a relentless slaughter. Scholars such as Krech tend to come from variations of this long-standing, over mythologized school that postulates Indians as primitive savages.

Krech participates in this antiquated, solipsistic "dialogue" under the pretenses of concern that the image of the ecological Indian does untold damage to Indians. His is not honest scholarship. His deception begins with his title, The Ecological Indian, because he doesn't mean in the least an Indian who is ecological, but one who is not ecological and never has been. He not only wants to rescue the term from its association with Indians but conquer ownership of the ideas inherent in the term as ideas intrinsic to European tradition, rather than Indian tradition. The paratactic coordination in his subtitle adds to his deception because Krech means not the history of the ecological Indian, but the history of what he tries to convince us is a myth. "Myth and Its History" would at least have been more honest, but it would have been better for him to be forthright about the real subject of his book and to have titled it honestly, The Myth of the Ecological Indian.

Usually these scholars aim their attacks on Indians at other Euro-based scholars, but what distinguishes Krech's work is its underhanded ad hominem assault on Vine Deloria and other Indians whom he calls "self-proclaimed" traditionalists. This must be his new phrase for "blanket Indians", the traditionalists from the rez-herding days who were ridiculed in much the same way. Krech's overtext is a sarcastic reply to Deloria's classic work, God is Red, a book that altered for Indians the course of academic studies on them and helped bring Indians to a realization of their traditional religion — a way of life and direction of thinking that European authority misinterpreted and suppressed from 1492 through political and religious institutions, such as the Holy Inquisition. One way that Krech (the ch pronounced like the ck in crock) tries to prove the error of Indian thinking is by showing us how Indians responded when cornered by the European tactical agenda of conquest and trade monopoly. He presents this in terms of fortune opportunities for Indians, failing to mention how monopoly and conquest competition between European powers undermined Indian traditions of free trade and drastically altered their economy and access to goods, such as Native textiles, cotton, gold and copper and bountiful agricultural products and foodstuffs. In 1492 Europe had no cotton and clothed its people in animal skins, woolens and metal armor, whereas America had developed a cotton that today remains one of the longest cotton fibers in the world and they grew it in what is now the U.S. South and other parts of the U.S. Natives exported boat loads of cotton down the Tennessee and Mississippi to what is now New Orleans. American Indians over the millennia had developed a great store of knowledge of natural history and plant botany, to the extent that they were able to create edible corn, a development that relied solely on human ingenuity. Indians propagated many different foodstuffs and great varieties of each. And we have to assume a certain playfulness of culture evident in such inventions as hot chili peppers, popcorn, and spaghetti squash, foods that modern culture delights in to this day. What were the political and religious traditions that nurtured such prolific species varieties and living space for them? By contrast in 1492 Europe had few foodstuffs and reflected a knowledge of botany and natural history apparently inferior to American knowledge which held diversity as the key to life. On America life was celebrated and diversity reigned, diverse forms of life, diverse colors, many and various weaving textures and textiles, diverse languages. However, Krech tries to make the case, using Cherokee and Sioux examples, that myths and Indian superstition encouraged and promoted unrestrained killing of animals.

All Krech really ends up showing us in his anecdotal diatribe against Indians is the kind of earth citizen brought forth from the monopolizing, proselytizing and conquesting tendencies in Old World tradition. [...]

More talk about The Ecological Indian
Unecological Indians?
'The First Environmentalists':  "Krech's subtext is far more insidious:  It seeks to absolve Europeans of blame"
The Speculations of Krech:  A review of The Ecological Indian by Vine Deloria, Jr.
Vine Deloria Jr.'s reactions to The Ecological Indian
Adrian Tanner reviews The Ecological Indian
Billy and Drew talk about ecological Indians

More evidence against The Ecological Indian
Woolly Mammoths Were Killed Off by Trees
Blame Europeans for buffalo slaughter?
Blame comet, not Indians
A New Look at the Old West:  At the Vore Buffalo Jump, Indians killed only 40 buffalo per year
Humans Cleared of Killing Off Woolly Mammoth
DNA Sheds Light on an American Die-Off:  Bison study could exonerate hunters in extinction mystery
Area Sites Used to Dispute Clovis/Extinction Link
Past Tribal Forest Burns Described
Ecological Indian Talk:  Some testimony Krech neglected to consult or include in his book

Related links
Another eco-book bashes Indians
Native vs. non-Native Americans:  a summary

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